When I received this month’s issue of National Geographic and read the title aloud: “Mary, the Most Powerful Woman in the World,” my husband remarked, “But isn’t Mary supposed to be humble?” I’m not sure, but I think he might have smirked.
The article focused on the adoration of Mary, especially among the world’s Catholics. What some call the “cult of Mary,” holds significant sway in the lives of millions of people across the globe–which is why the author calls Mary the “most powerful woman in the world.”
My response to Allen’s query about Mary’s humility–you know I had one–was this: “But isn’t her humility the source of her power?”
I was, of course, only trying to counter what I perceived to be my beloved’s smirk… but it got me thinking. Is humility a source of power? Was Mary both humble and strong?
The story begins when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and delivers a message similar to the one he delivered to Zechariah a few verses before: “Surprise! You’re going to have a baby!” For Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, the surprise is that they’re older than you’d think new parents would be. For Mary, the surprise is that she’s younger, or at least less married.
The message Gabriel delivers to these two sets of parents is similar, but how he responds when they doubt the veracity of the message is quite different. When Zechariah expresses doubt, he is struck mute. When Mary expresses doubt, Gabriel patiently walks her through everything that’s going to happen. He even gives her a ready-made support system–her kinswoman Elizabeth. If I were Zechariah, I’d be filing a grievance with somebody!
It’s after Zechariah gets the announcement about his impending fatherhood, but before his son is born, that Mary arrives with the news of her pregnancy. So, when Mary shows up, Zechariah is still mute and Elizabeth is six months pregnant.
Luke tells us that “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Elizabeth goes on like that for a while. Then Mary responds the way most folks in the Gospel of Luke respond–she breaks into song (I like to call Luke the “Broadway Gospel.” J). We sang a version of Mary’s song before the sermon. As we hear the Scripture text on which the hymn is based, see what you think: Is Mary powerful, humble, or both?
‘My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
47 and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior,
48 for you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant
And from this day forward all generations will call me blessed;
49 for you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.
50 Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you
51 You have shown strength with your arm;
You have scattered the proud in their conceit.
52 You have deposed the powerful from their thrones,
and raised the lowly to high places;
53 You have filled the hungry with good things,
While you have sent the rich away empty.
54 You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
Mindful of your mercy,
55 the promise you made to our ancestors,
to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.’
So, what do you think? Is Mary humble? She begins by offering praise to God, which hints at humility, but then she goes on about her humility for a verse and a half. God has lifted up her lowliness; God has done great things for her…which, she off-handedly mentions, will lead people from generation to generation to call her blessed… So, here’s a question: If you have to tell folks how humble you are, how humble are you?
What is humility, anyway? Often, we equate it with humilitation. But what I’ve learned from the Benedictines is that humility isn’t about beating up on ourselves or allowing others to do so. Rather, true humility comes from seeing things as they are, from seeing ourselves as we are. Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister suggests that humility is about “knowing our place in the universe, our connectedness, our dependence on God for the little greatness we have,” (77). “Humility lies in knowing who we are,” (82). Poet Mary Oliver describes this kind of humility as “knowing our place in the family of things.”
So, looking at Mary in light of this understanding of humility, is she humble? Absolutely. As shocking as Gabriel’s news is to her, she takes time to process it, then accepts it and goes with it. “Let it be with me as you say,” she tells Gabriel.
What if Mary had continued in her reticence? What if she’d said, “Oh, no. I just couldn’t. I can’t do what you’re asking me to do. I’m just a teenager! I’m not smart enough! I’m not brave enough!” If Mary had not been clear-eyed about who she was and believed in what Gabriel was telling her her life was meant to be, it’s doubtful Jesus would have gotten the parenting he needed to discover what his life was meant to be. If Mary hadn’t accepted her place in the family of things, it’s doubtful Jesus would have discovered his.
So, Mary is humble—after some discernment, she discovers what she is called to do and be…and in accepting that calling, in finding her place in the family of things, she also finds great strength. Sr. Joan acknowledges this paradox when she writes: “The irony of humility is that, if we have it, we know we are made for greatness, we are made for God.” (82) So, my response to Allen’s question about Mary’s humility (and I say this with great humility) was right on the mark— Mary’s humility was the source of her power.
And look what she did with that power! She raised Jesus to become all God created him to be. Where did Jesus learn to stand with the poor, to seek justice for the down-trodden, to live God’s love by acting others into wellbeing? Where he did get the image of a God who “scatters the proud, deposes the powerful, raises the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty,” if not at his mother’s knee? Who knows? Maybe Mary sang him the song she sings Elizabeth and Zechariah. Perhaps it was this ancient song sung by his mother that inspired Jesus to work to discover his place in the family of things.
Power in humility. That’s Mary’s lesson for us today. There is great power in seeing ourselves exactly as we are—not as we want to be, not as we once were, and not as others want us to be. No. The greatest power we have comes from being who we are created to be. And when we are who we’re created to be? That’s when God can really start using us.
That’s what happened with Sarah and Angelina Grimke in early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina. Allen and I spent a couple of days in Charleston this week celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. While there, we took the Grimke sisters tour. http://grimkesisterstour.com/
The tour is based on sites and stories included—and some that aren’t–in Sue Monk Kidd’s historical novel, The Invention of Wings. (The book club will be discussing the book at its Jan. 5th meeting.)
As daughters of a wealthy planting family in the early 1800s, Sarah and Angelina were expected to receive a small bit of education—enough to be able to run the household—then to attend finishing school, find a suitable husband (which meant someone of equal or higher economic status), and have babies. That’s the position in life their upper class society had assigned them, but it wasn’t the life God imagined for them.
Extremely bright, Sarah always hoped to become a lawyer like her father and brother. Her father even told her once that she’d make an excellent attorney, “If you were male.” But she wasn’t male.
Sarah also wasn’t willing to sit idly by while her fellow human beings were treated savagely through the legal practice of slavery. Sarah, and later her 11 year younger sister Angelina, both committed themselves fully to the causes of abolition and women’s rights, traveling around the country—mostly in the northeast—speaking against the woeful (and shameful) circumstances of slavery and advocating for equal rights for women.
In 1836, Angelina wrote An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, urging southern women to petition their state legislatures and church officials to end slavery. Three months later, Sarah followed up with a similar letter to Charleston’s clergy. It wasn’t long before the sisters’ activism made them pariahs in the south. From the late 1830s until their deaths after the Civil War, the sisters lived in the north.
When I hear about all the radical, brave things the Grimke sisters did in the cause for justice, I don’t know about you, but I feel lazy, ordinary, not so brave. We’re also facing some pretty intense social justice issues in the 21st century. Our world needs some people—a lot of people—like Sarah and Angelina. But I just don’t know that I can do the kinds of things the Grimke sisters did. I just don’t feel that strong.
Huh. So, if I don’t feel strong, maybe I need to work on my humility. Maybe that’s true for all of us. When we feel overwhelmed by the world’s needs, when we feel powerless in the face of all that must be done, maybe that’s when we need to center ourselves and get in touch again with who we are, reacquaint ourselves with our unique place in the family of things.
Howard Thurman said it this way: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Sarah and Angelina Grimke–and Mary–were able to do the things they did because they had come alive; they had found their places in the family of things. Have you?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015